History of Swear Words on Netflix is a crash course on how linguistic excesses snaked their way into pop culture

Knock Knock…

Who’s there?

Nicolas Cage.

F**k, S**t, D**k!!!

Damn, why so angry B****h?

Fourteen years ago, I excitedly walked into a movie theatre to watch Johnny Blaze (Ghost Rider, 2007), and rediscover one of the wildest comic book characters of my growing-up years. Two hours later, I walked out of that theatre swearing off Cage forever. After having endured duds like Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001), National Treasure (2004), and The Weather Man (2005), I really should have known better. Say what you will about the man but there are very few that can match the sheer tattiness of his hamming abilities. 

And yet, the trailer for Netflix’s new offering, History of Swear Words had me wanting more. The poster had his face, the trailer had him spouting words that just seemed too grown-up for him, and… wait for it… he was holding a leather-bound book! So when the show dropped, I settled in front of my TV set with mixed feelings and a cup of hot cocoa. His face appears on screen like a bad memory, and he stares you down for a whole 13 seconds before he asks, “The F*** you looking at?” The man owes me a brand new set of pyjamas. Ever heard of chocolate stains, b***h???

If the intention was to get me into a delicious state of foul-mouthedness, I was whole-heartedly there.

The first couple of episodes revolve around the most widely used cuss words in the English language, F**k and S**t. You are taken into the origins of these words, some myths are busted, and you are enlightened with hitherto unknown (and totally useless) facts like the part of your brain swear words reside in. And oh, did you know that you are five percent stronger when you are swearing?

When Netflix announced the series a month or so ago, it attracted eyeballs but only because it was designed to. Telling people that there is a series out there with six episodes around words like F**k, S**t, B****h, D**k, P***y, and Damn (huh?) has to be the easiest sell for a platform that does not do much by way of trashy television. 

Except it is not all trashy. 

The producers have roped in credible experts on the show — historians, cognitive scientists, lexicologists, etymologists, and other such whatthef***doyoudo-ologists. If it is not surreal watching serious people talk seriously about where the f-word came from, I do not know what is. There is also a smattering of comedians like Sarah Silverman, Zainab Johnson, Nick Offerman, Nikki Glaser, Open Mike Eagle, and Patti Harrison just in case the surrealism takes over. The end product is something that is parodic in parts, informative in others, and at times pretty funny too. There are tons of pop culture references, and even demonstrative segments like Johnson and Glaser plunging their hands into ice-cold water, all part of an empirical effort to prove that cussing increases one’s threshold of pain.

And then, there is Cage spouting nonsense throughout like a Shakespearean character that accidentally dropped into an episode of The Sopranos. Is all of this entertaining? Sure, but only because the episodes are 20-minute long. It is a breeze to get through without having to give it a second thought. 

You do hit a small vein of gold though, towards the end of the first season. With words like b****h, d**k, and p***y, the conversation veers towards gendered language, and there are some serious takeaways on what is acceptable and what is not. And because the show promises you some history, reasons are put forward rather than plain axioms on political correctedness. The importance of context is spelt out, and what one takes away is a fully formed picture on why some words can be construed as offensive. Take, for example, the word b***h and why it is okay for two women to use it on each other but not a man. The series breaks down those reasons with strong doses of history and the modern reclamation of the word by women. There is even a segment on why some think the word is ‘okay’ to be used in hip-hop but not elsewhere. 

Whether one agrees or not, it makes for some interesting and informative viewing, delivered in a fun punchy style. The series is rounded off with ‘damn,’ a word that is hardly considered an expletive today but throws up one of the best episodes of the lot. As one digs into the origins of the word, there are some pretty interesting lessons on how words have taken on different meanings through the ages, and what swear words really are in a societal context.

I walked into History of Swear Words not knowing what to expect, and took away some interesting anecdotes to be used in drunken conversations, a couple of interesting facts to school errant men, and am torn over my 14-year-old decision to steer clear of anything that features Nicolas Cage. There is just something about the way he contorts his face. 

History of Swear Words is an idea that is right for the times we live in, and the platform it appears on. It is in parts a crash course on being PC, and in parts a comedic take on how swear words have snaked their way into pop culture. With the sudden fancy for cuss words in everything that is Indian OTT, maybe it is time for a desi version. I, for one, would love to see experts talking about the origins of the MCs and BCs we are suddenly hearing so much of. And yeah, I wish someone had done this while Khushwant Singh was still alive.

History of Swear Words is streaming on Netflix.

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